Great Astronomers HTML version

The Earl Of Rosse
The subject of our present sketch occupies quite a distinct position in scientific history.
Unlike many others who have risen by their scientific discoveries from obscurity to fame,
the great Earl of Rosse was himself born in the purple. His father, who, under the title of
Sir Lawrence Parsons, had occupied a distinguished position in the Irish Parliament,
succeeded on the death of his father to the Earldom which had been recently created. The
subject of our present memoir was, therefore, the third of the Earls of Rosse, and he was
born in York on June 17, 1800. Prior to his father's death in 1841, he was known as Lord
The University education of the illustrious astronomer was begun in Dublin and
completed at Oxford. We do not hear in his case of any very remarkable University
career. Lord Rosse was, however, a diligent student, and obtained a first-class in
mathematics. He always took a great deal of interest in social questions, and was a
profound student of political economy. He had a seat in the House of Commons, as
member for King's County, from 1821 to 1834, his ancestral estate being situated in this
part of Ireland.
Lord Rosse was endowed by nature with a special taste for mechanical pursuits. Not only
had he the qualifications of a scientific engineer, but he had the manual dexterity which
qualified him personally to carry out many practical arts. Lord Rosse was, in fact, a
skilful mechanic, an experienced founder, and an ingenious optician. His acquaintances
were largely among those who were interested in mechanical pursuits, and it was his
delight to visit the works or engineering establishments where refined processes in the
arts were being carried on. It has often been stated--and as I have been told by members
of his family, truly stated--that on one occasion, after he had been shown over some large
works in the north of England, the proprietor bluntly said that he was greatly in want of a
foreman, and would indeed be pleased if his visitor, who had evinced such extraordinary
capacity for mechanical operations, would accept the post. Lord Rosse produced his card,
and gently explained that he was not exactly the right man, but he appreciated the
compliment, and this led to a pleasant dinner, and was the basis of a long friendship.
I remember on one occasion hearing Lord Rosse explain how it was that he came to
devote his attention to astronomy. It appears that when he found himself in the possession
of leisure and of means, he deliberately cast around to think how that means and that
leisure could be most usefully employed. Nor was it surprising that he should search for a
direction which would offer special scope for his mechanical tastes. He came to the
conclusion that the building of great telescopes was an art which had received no
substantial advance since the great days of William Herschel. He saw that to construct
mighty instruments for studying the heavens required at once the command of time and
the command of wealth, while he also felt that this was a subject the inherent difficulties
of which would tax to the uttermost whatever mechanical skill he might possess. Thus it